Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Mercy Seat of Rom 3:25

On Better Bibles, Suzanne McCarthy objects to the term "propitiation" used in various translations of Rom 3:25:

"I find the term 'propitiation' to be a strangely Latin intrusion into the English Bible. In fact, I was surprised to see it there in Romans 3:25. It seemed to me that Romans 3 was referring to the mercy-seat or the lid of the ark of the covenant... I have to say that I am somewhat upset to find that the use of the term 'propitiation' has been made into such a 'cause celebre' - that people feel that they are getting a more authentic Bible if it has the term 'propitiation' in it."

I have found the work of Stephen Finlan to be immensely helpful in dealing with Rom 3:25. "Propitiation", to be sure, is not the accurate translation here, though it is implied conceptually. Paul's belief that Christ is the new mercy seat of atonement (HILASTERION) involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners). Finlan is probably right that Gentiles would have heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Judeans would have heard both propitiary and expiatory themes (see The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, pp 141-143). But from Paul's point of view, the propitiatory themes must surely dominate, because Christ's sacrifice follows hot on the heels of God's wrath -- recounted at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (see ibid, p 144).

I'm glad Suzanne brought this up, because Rom 3:25 is one of the best biblical examples where an accurate translation becomes important for the conclusions it leaves the reader to draw without spelling them out. Finlan again:

"Those translations of Rom 3:25 that make an explicit equation of Christ with an animal victim need to be corrected, but the implied equation can hardly be avoided since the mercy seat is the place where the sacrificial animal's blood is sprinkled... Allowing the reader to make the connection, but not forcing the connection, is part of what a good translation does... The more [we make] reference to the mercy seat, the more [we] beg the question of the sacrificial ritual performed at that spot." (pp 128-129)


Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nice followup post, Loren. And I like the conclusions you draw for translation, that it not be too direct, but explicit enough to allow the reader to draw conclusions from the contexts. FWIW, that's largely the them of those who apply Relevance Theory to translation, such as Ernest-Augst Gutt. (He can be googled.)


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